Admire its purity
Though it was initially seen as "Jaws-in-space," the legacy for Alien is certainly much more pristine than the one with the giant shark. Originally released in 1979, the first Alien would eventually become a much-loved horror film that spawned a major movie franchise. And while the sequels would get more attention and prominence among fans, the original still holds a special place in the hearts of fans.
After the release of some rather disappointing Alien titles, and with the Cameron interpretation of Alien as the de-facto standard for the franchise, the developers at Creative Assembly believed it was about time fans went back to the roots of the series. Just a week before gamescom, Sega invited Destructoid out to get some quality time with Alien: Isolation, and to speak with the game's creative lead, Alistair Hope. During our time, we got to learn just how different horror is when faced off with something out of your league.
Alien: Isolation (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 [previewed], PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Back when the uproar over Aliens: Colonial Marines happened, the developers at Creative Assembly were hard at work on Isolation and waiting for the time to unveil their project. "No one ever made the Alien game I wanted to play, which was about taking you back to the roots of the series -- which is one Alien, who is really meaningful," said creative lead Alistair Hope. "What would it be like to encounter Ridley Scott's original Alien? Who's massive, intelligent, and just something that's hunting you down."
First off, forget everything you know about the sequels to the original Alien. This game is set several decades before those events, and many of the buzzwords, tropes, and other plot points for the colonial space-marines don't exist yet. The ship from the original film, the Nostromo, is destroyed, the Alien was blown out of the airlock, and the fate of lone survivor Ellen Ripley is unknown.
Taking place 15 years after the original film, Alien: Isolation tells the story of Amanda Ripley, the daughter of the series' central character. After receiving word that the space station Sevastopol has recovered the Nostromo's flight recorder, she hurries to the station to learn of her mother's fate. Upon arriving, she finds the station in chaos as staff have gone into disarray after an Alien has taken up residence there. Now with the lives of herself and her crew on the line, Amanda must venture through the Sevastopol looking for answers, while evading the near omnipresent Alien.
Now when I first heard that we'd be playing as the daughter of Ellen Ripley, I sorta rolled my eyes and thought of it as a gimmick to eek some connection from the first movie. But I was wrong -- in the few hours I had with the game, I saw a lot to like with Amanda's character. She's scrappy, determined, and can definitely handle herself.
"We wanted to tell a story that had an emotional connection to that first film, to focus on someone who actually cared about the Nostromo," said Hope. "She has a lot of the same qualities of her mother, but she's taken her own path and she's very much her own character."
With more people clamoring for strong female heroes to play as, Ripley is exactly the kind of character many would like. Not only does she set herself apart from her mother by being more talkative, and more knowledgeable and handy, but she feels like a unique character that works well on her own. It's refreshing to play as a regular character with an unusual history brought into a trying circumstance, as opposed to just another space-marine that you'd likely forget about by game's end.
In more ways than one, Alien: Isolation is very much a throwback to the bleak and haunting sci-fi and horror films of the 1970s. Everything from the character look, atmosphere, and visual style have been recreated to match the tone and style of the original Alien film. To take things further, film grain and the color palette match with what many fans saw from the first film, and Creative Assembly wanted to recreate the same atmosphere for this new game.
"One of the big things I love about Alien is that '70s view of the future," said Hope. "That low-fi sci-fi. It's cool because it owns its own space, it's not the style of science fiction that we're used to, and it looks great and very immersive."
One of the big takeaways I had from this game is the art design. Isolation's aesthetic comes from the past's view of the future. As future prediction is relative to the times, the 1970s view of the future features structural designs and computers that feel analog and mechanical, CRT monitors with charming and antiquated graphics are placed in every room, and multilingual welcome signs show a coalesced human society of the future. The developers at Creative Assembly did an admirable job with replicating the "used" future look, as seen in Alien, Moon, and Star Wars. And it definitely makes for a more visually appealing haunted house.
In case you haven't figured it out by now, Alien: Isolation is almost the opposite style and tone seen in James Cameron's Aliens, and from all the derivatives that followed. While Aliens emphasized action-horror with powerful characters stretched to their limits, Alien is a horror-thriller with characters who are outmatched by an unknown force. Creative Assembly wanted to return to the original tone and atmosphere, as it's still largely unknown for gaming.
"One of the things we put up on the wall [during initial design] was to 're-Alien the Alien'. You can go back to the original Alien, which is over 35 years old, and even though it's old you can still get an emotional response from it," Hope stated. "And it's a testament to the power of the craft. It was important to me to have the Alien not run around your waist like a rabid dog, but to be big and imposing, that commanded your respect."
Respect is a great way of putting it. In the previous games, players are used to mowing down swarms of aliens without feeling any real fear. It's very ingrained, when you think about it. This aspect of the human vs. alien conflict is what CA wanted to change, and in order to do so, players had to be knocked down a few pegs.
"Horror I think is about small victories. It's those tiny moments where you think 'maybe I can make it,' and if I keep doing it maybe I can."
In an atmosphere filled with dread, the tension is incredibly heavy. You're not playing as a badass space-marine with ammo and firepower to blow away swarms of Aliens; you're a regular person with limited resources that has to think about firing a shot or even whether to make the tough decision to peek around a corner to see if the enemy is near. You're vulnerable, and the odds are against you. And the creature you're up against is intelligent, cunning, and unkillable by conventional means. And encountering it is quite possibly the worst thing that can happen to your character.
During my session, I had to find a trauma kit to heal an injured crew member. I carefully made my way through an abandoned crew's quarters, and suddenly the Alien crashed down from a shaft in the ceiling. Not noticing me, I ducked under a table and watched as he lurked through the halls, looking for a new prey. For most other Alien games, we would've ended the encounter there with a few shots from a pulse rifle. Not so here. Stealth and careful use of your gadgets, such as the invaluable motion tracker (which shows movement and objectives) and noisemaker gadget (which does exactly that) are necessary for survival.
Once the Alien discovers you, you're pretty much done for. Within the first ten minutes of encountering this thing, I was killed twice. Both times featured unique death animations, one where the Alien yanks Ripley and finishes her with a single bite, and another where the Alien crawls on top of Ripley and goes for the kill. It was certainly humbling to face against something that I was no match for, I was definitely on edge throughout my few hours with the game.
In keeping with its "throwback" style, the gameplay feels very much like a return to classic survival horror. Specifically in the vein of early Resident Evil titles and Alone in the Dark. Your resources are limited and sparse, you face unrelenting and powerful odds, and you're vulnerable to attack at the unlikeliest of moments -- to say things are tense would be putting it lightly. Moreover, Isolation also uses a fixed save point system. Creative Assembly cited this as a design choice to get players to think about where they want to set their flag, but also to prevent players from taking advantage of checkpoints and save-anywhere options, which would mitigate the tension.
There were definitely times where I felt too nervous to make a move, as the Alien would have a general sense of where I was and stay around the area. And no, it usually won't go away if it knows you're there. Safety feels like a luxury, and moments that felt like downtime only resulted in the creature re-emerging from its hiding spot, almost as if to remind players who's boss.
"We certainly don't want players to feel 100 percent safe, however this game has to be about tension and release," said Hope, while discussing the balance between creating tension. "It can't be unrelentingly oppressive and constantly overbearing, you need to be able to breath, before you can embark into the unknown."
While he's definitely correct about striking a balance between tension and release, I myself was mostly tense throughout the experience. One major criticism I had was that the objective locations are kept fairly vague while only giving you a general direction to head to. Picture this: you're looking for a small keycard located in a hallway with multiple rooms. You don't know where it is, and you have to sneak through each room searching for it, all the while having the Alien lurking about. You begin to get frustrated, you can't find what you need to leave and you start to panic, you knock over a nearby object (objects create noise which attracts the Alien), and the creature rushes off to your room.
At times, it felt like I was in a hopeless situation and that a restart was necessary. I was stuck in a supply closet and the Alien stuck its head toward the vents of the closets to see if I was inside. During this point, you can hold your breath and wait for the Alien to pass, but I let go of the button and let out a big gasp for air -- of course, the Alien heard it, ripped the doors off its hinges and dragged me to my death. It's moments like these that make the experience incredibly suspenseful, but in order to survive, you have to be prepared.
To get the upper hand on the Alien and overcome many other obstacles, Ripley must use her engineering skills to craft items and weaponry to survive her trek through the Sevastopol. The in-game crafting system allows players to make Medkits, ammo, and other tools to survive. While you will acquire core weaponry, such as the revolver, stun-baton, and flamethrower, many other gadgets like the noisemaker and Molotov cocktails require components that are found from looting dead bodies and crates. Though be careful, crafting will not pause the game and if you're in an unsafe location, you can be easily picked off by the Alien.
While the Alien is unrelenting and intimidating, it isn't the only enemy you have to worry about. Throughout the station you'll find other humans doing whatever it takes to survive the chaos. Even if means taking out Ripley. While there are people that players can peacefully interact with, others will attack on sight. Which is not only a problem, but the noise from this conflict will also attract the Alien. Though depending on how you play, this can work to your advantage. If you're clever enough, you can lure the beast out of hiding with gadgets and use the humans as a distraction. If done right, the Alien will leap out from whatever vent or rafter it's hiding from and make quick work of them, allowing you to pick up resources after the carnage.
"It's not about killing, it's about survival. It felt like there had to more interaction with this creature than just pulling a trigger," said Hope while discussing the different options you have for combat." You can actually finish the game without killing anyone, so it's down to your choice. It's a big part of the game experience, we put these situations in your hands."
Another enemy to watch out for are the Working Joes, or synthetic androids as seen from the films. Throughout the Sevastopol there are Working Joes on standby, and in some cases players can activate them for assistance, such as locating and procuring sensitive equipment. However, the Working Joes are also kept to maintain the integrity of the station, and if players tamper or destroy sensitive equipment, the androids will treat you as a hostile threat and enter a search-and-destroy protocol. While they appear slow and crude, they're extremely powerful and possess some sharper senses than the creature. The Alien is intimidating and scary, but Working Joes are just plain creepy.
I came in expecting a game that would be better than the previous titles by default, but I ended up playing a game that not only surprised me with its cleverness and complexity, it gave me a greater appreciation for the original film as well. Alien: Isolation knows exactly what it's doing, and its approach to offering an uncompromising and harsh experience that'll frighten and humble players should win over many who wrote off the series.
With its release on October 7, Isolation's return to classic horror will likely give gamers looking for a survivalist experience -- and those in need of a good scare -- something to look anticipate. And with the Alien lurking the halls of the space station, the odds will certainly be against you. But to quote the cunning android Ash from the original film, "I can't lie to you about your chances, but … you have my sympathies."